The history of flood control and associated conservation measures has been a theme pursued by this column for years. I find the subject to be a fascinating one.
Beginning in the 1870s the effects of land clearing on water levels and the flows in the river became noticeable, but few were prepared to link human activity with the change.
By the 1890s there could be no doubt that land clearing and drainage efforts were producing monumental floods in spring and dry periods later in the summers. Those developments reinforced the arguments made by a small handful of conservationists. Still, there was no action by governments or co-operation among local jurisdictions to take corrective measures.
In 1930 Hugh Templin, editor of the Fergus News Record, published a letter from J.P. Jaffray of Galt. Jaffray claimed that the Luther Marsh was the key to any flood control measures on the Grand. He attributed the flood problems in part to the actions of the Ontario government in promoting drainage. Templin followed with some comments of his own.
That provoked a long letter from John Malcolm on the subject. He was very familiar with the area, and corrected some minor points made by Jaffray. More importantly, Malcolm claimed that the amount of water coming from the Luther Marsh into the Grand River was minuscule. He agreed that the marsh was a huge flat area, and that there were some “islands” of higher land within it, but that it contributed little to the flows of the Grand.
A man by the name of Jones, wrote Malcolm, settled on one of those islands, which was some 800 acres in size. A small creek drained the island, and it eventually drained into the Grand River after meandering through the swamp. Beavers dammed the creek near its mouth, raising the water level in that part of the swamp, and making access to the Jones farm impossible except by boat.
Jones petitioned the township council, requesting the construction of a road to give him access to his land. The township council, cringing at the expense, refused. Jones took council to court, and council lost the case.
Council had to construct the road, and take measures to lower the water level. That included removing the beaver dam, killing the beaver, and constructing drainage ditches. That lowered the water level in the Luther Marsh, but the overall effect on the Grand River was minimal because the marsh itself did not receive runoff water from a very large area.
The real culprit, claimed Malcolm, was the provincial Ditches and Watercourses Act. Farmers took advantage of that act, he said, to drain areas of their farms that had been useless swamps and turn them into productive fields. He noted that West Garafraxa had once been about one-third swamp, not peat bog, and that by 1930 virtually none of that swampland remained. Farmers had installed drainage ditches which removed the bulk of excess rain water into the Grand River within hours of it falling. The former swamps had once held the water for much of the summer.
The volume of water held in those old swamps and by beaver dams was immense, claimed Malcolm, while that from the Luther Marsh “is not a drop in the bucket by comparison.”
He wrote that the remains of some of the old beaver dams still existed, some near and in Fergus itself. The destruction of those dams and the construction of drainage ditches was the real cause of problems on the Grand, he insisted.
Malcolm was writing about Templin’s pet subject, and the editor could not help but respond. He began his response in the edition of November 20, 1930, by agreeing with many of Malcolm’s claims. He admitted that the creeks in Fergus swelled to raging torrents during spring snow melts and after summer deluges, then drying up completely for much of the summer. But Templin could not agree that the Luther Marsh played a minuscule role. He claimed that the marsh was once a vast reservoir, but in recent years was largely dry each summer. He admitted that his claims were based on his own observations, not on scientific measurement or study.
The lack of any significant data on the Grand River was remarkable. In 1930 the river system and its problems had been the subject of discussion for 60 years, but no government had been motivated to take measurements and study it systematically.
Templin wrote that during the 1920s, after he acquired a motor car, he often visited the marsh. He noted that the old drainage ditches, dug decades earlier, still functioned to remove the bulk of the water each spring.
He claimed that by mid summer the “great sea” became a vast area of dried peat, strong enough to support a motor car. He said the entire area was so dry that it was possible to walk almost anywhere in the marsh. Templin called it a dramatic change from the days when Jones had to use a raft or boat to access his farm.
Templin pointed out that the marsh itself was higher than the surrounding lands, and could not be used to drain the surrounding farms, as some people were suggesting. Templin thought that those who owned the land in the marsh, including the three or four “islands” of higher land, should be bought out, and the entire area turned into a conservation area. He insisted that little could be done in the way of conservation while the land remained in private hands.
But before anything was done, Templin insisted that further investigation of the Luther Marsh and its role in the ecology of the Grand River was necessary. The study should be done by “some competent person….for at least one year in an attempt to solve its riddle.”
In conclusion, Templin admitted that the issue did not trouble Fergus a great deal, because the high banks kept the water contained. Elora had similar advantages. The same could not be said for Grand Valley to the north, or for Galt to the south. That city was the great sufferer and had endured hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.
Though he did not realize it at the time he wrote those words in November 1930, Templin’s writing and lobbying helped achieve some concrete results during the decade to follow.
The municipalities along the Grand at last began to co-operate. The provincial government, desiring to undertake public projects that put out-of-work men in useful employment, provided the impetus and funding for the first flood control dam on the Grand, at a site near that first suggested by Hugh Templin years earlier. He was in the official party at the opening ceremony of the Shand Dam in August 1942, and surely felt vindicated.
The next big project was a dam in Luther, to restore the former marsh.
That story has been covered in this column previously, as loyal readers will recall. It is impossible now to think of the Grand River without those dams. Hugh Templin’s contributions to their construction should never be forgotten. It is a demonstration of what someone can accomplish without holding public office, and what a dedicated editor and newspaper can achieve for the community.